Second Temple Jewish Monotheism has come up in reference to:

The most guidance the tag currently has is:

Questions about Jewish history, practices, culture, and beliefs between the return from Babylonian captivity and the destruction of the temple by Titus.

That may work for a tag on STJ, but STJ Monotheism needs more clarity so we know what is referred to in questions. This question may even be linked as partial guidance for that tag or a unique tag to distinguish from that tag (to be decided on meta site if needed).

This is a matter of historical context for hermeneutical study; this is not a doctrinal question about truth!

I want to know what about a known ancient belief during the time of the New Testament that could have impacted what was written in the Bible, what events were recorded in the Bible, and what the audience might have perceived while reading what is now in our Bible.

What was Second Temple Monotheism in the Jewish Religion during the period of Zerubbabel and Herod's Second Temple?

  • What are it's basic ideas that make it unique?
  • How did it develop?
  • Was it mainline or fringe?
  • Is Second Temple Judaism somehow different from Second Temple Jewish Monotheism?
  • Was it likely or unlikely taught in most Synagogues during the time of the Gospels?
    • If not, then how would it be different?
    • If so, then what else might have been taught at Synagogues, if anything?
  • How many non-Jews knew of it?
  • Answers could address any, all, or other than these, but at least some
  • Please make quotes small and cite many sources, including "further reading"
    • Citation should be historical/theology experts, not much dependence on Old Testament

A test for a good answer might be how it would or would not apply to helping understand the Samaritan woman's comments about what Jews teach:

John 4:20 (NASB)

Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people [Jews] say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.

1 Answer 1


Within Judaism, Second Temple monotheism is a rejection in the existence of any God other than YHVH. It was a reaction to the exile which had resulted from Israel's worship of other gods. Since YHVH was the Creator, He was God Almighty and other lesser gods were deemed to be fictitious.

The Shema
On the sister site, mi yodeya there are several questions and answers about the Shema.

All address the Shema from different perspectives, All show reciting the Shema is a later practice which began in the Second Temple period. A main aspect of Second Temple Judaism was the development of the Shema and its acceptance as a daily statement of faith. In Judaism, the Shema is comparable to a Creed.

Old Testament scholar Bernard M. Levenson says that to regard the Shema as an assertion of monotheism is "a view that is anachronistic. In the context of ancient Israelite religion, it served as a public proclamation of exclusive loyalty to YHVH as the sole LORD of Israel..."1

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.b (Deuteronomy 6:4) [NJPS]

Note b: Cf. Rashbam and Ibn Ezra; see Zechariah 14:9. Others “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” [And the LORD shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one LORD with one name.d Zechariah 14:9]

On the NJPS translation of Deuteronomy 6:4 Levenson states:

NJPS correctly departs from the more familiar translation, “The LORD [YHVH] our God, the LORD is one” (see translators’ note b). Each of the two interpretations is theoretically possible because, in Hebrew, it is possible to form a sentence by simply joining a subject and a predicate, without specifying the verb “to be.” The Hebrew here thus allows either “YHVH, our God, YHVH is one” or “YHVH, is our God, YHVH alone.” The first, older translation, which makes a statement about the unity and the indivisibility of God, does not do full justice to this text (though it makes sense in a later Jewish context as a polemic against Christianity). The verse makes not a quantitative argument (about the number of deities) but a qualitative one, about the nature of the relationship between God and Israel. Almost certainly, the original force of the verse, as the medieval Jewish exegetes in translators’ note b recognized, was to demand Israel show exclusive loyalty to our God, YHVH – but not thereby to deny the existence of other gods! In this way, it assumes the same perspective as the first commandment of the Decalogue, which, by prohibiting the worship of other gods, presupposes their existence.2

Levenson notes the similarity of meaning with the First Commandment:

You shall have no other gods besides Me. (Deuteronomy 5:7)

This first commandment takes for granted the existence of other gods; its concern is only to ensure Israel’s exclusive loyalty to YHVH. This perspective, called “monolatry,” is found frequently within Deuteronomy (see 6.4; 32.8-9, 43; 33.2-3, 27). The idea of monolatry is often expressed by representing YHVH as the ruler of the divine council (see 32.8 n.; Psalm 82; 89.6-8; cf. Exodus 15.11). That perspective almost certainly represents an earlier form of Israelite religion. Ancient Near Eastern sources similarly envision a chief god ruling over a council of other gods. During the Babylonian exile, perhaps under the influence of Second Isaiah, a very different understanding developed. Radical “monotheism” affirms God’s greatness, not by portraying Him as more powerful than other gods but, instead, by denying the existence of other gods altogether (see 4.15-31 n; Isaiah 43.10-12; 44.6-8, 45.5-6, 14, 18-19, 22).3

In other words, where the Torah states there are gods (plural) and Israel is to worship only YHVH, under the Rabbinic teachings of the Second Temple period, the existence of any god other than YHVH was denied.

Levenson terms this "radical monotheism." A belief which replaces proclaiming God's greatness by His superiority over other gods with denying the existence of other gods altogether.

Once that perspective became normative in the period following the exile, the earlier view was no longer intelligible. As a result, in the process of reading, preaching, and translating the biblical text, Second Temple Jewish communities sometimes read the later perspective into texts that actually had in mind the earlier idea of God as ruling a divine council.4

1. Bernard M. Levenson, The Jewish Study Bible, Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 380
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., p. 375
4. Ibid.

  • I like how OT Scripture is used here: to help understand how Scripture is seen by this belief system. It is not just an OT SysTheo, but based on how a society viewed the OT passages.
    – Jesse
    Commented Feb 21 at 3:12
  • So, then is this what we can presume was being taught in Synagogues described in the Gospels? And, could this likely be behind the ideas the woman at the well faced with her statement "You [Jews] say Jerusalem is the only valid temple."? Do I understand correctly?
    – Jesse
    Commented Feb 21 at 3:14
  • 1
    Until the Temple was destroyed I believe there were two things taking place. The Temple would still be a focal point for those in Jerusalem or during the feasts. The synagogue would be a local place and the one with a bigger impact for most Jews. A "decentralized" place would be more acceptable after the exile and because of the diaspora. The Shema would be a logical development for Jews outside Israel since they lived among Gentiles and surrounded by idols and temples to pagan gods. Commented Feb 21 at 4:16
  • So, if I understand correctly, this is the dominant Jewish thought in Palestine in the Gospels, and probably even stronger in Jerusalem, but still quite strong in Galilee. Correct?
    – Jesse
    Commented Feb 21 at 12:51
  • @Jesse I think history suggests it was stronger outside of Jerusalem. Once the Temple was gone and the priestly class lost authority the dominant party was the Pharisees. The synagogue became the only center of worship, teaching, and importance in everyday life. So during the Second Temple this shift was already taking place. The authority of the synagogue was secondary but primary in terms everyday life. The role of the Pharisees in the Gospels foreshadows what happened after the Temple was destroyed. Away from the Temple Judaism was under greater influence of the Pharisees. Commented Feb 21 at 14:44

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